Long after she took her gloves off, boxing legend Conjestina Achieng, 41, is waging the battle of her life. The crowd-puller swapped the ring for rehab years ago, but her resolve for mental stability has never been more tested.
Weeks after she was moved from Nairobi West Hospital to Lower Kabete and now Diani, Conjestina’s condition has only gone from bad to worse, sources say.
“Conjestina is not doing well. Her situation is yet to improve. But all in all, we can only hope for the best,” a Nairobi official speaking on condition of anonymity said.
After a successful career that made her the darling of many Kenyans, ‘Conje’ has been bogged down by mental illness and financial problems since 2011. She attacked her younger brother in Siaya in 2016 after escaping from rehab in Kisumu, grievously injuring him with a sharp object.
Media personality Daniel Ndambuki bailed her out of rent problems in 2013 after news of her failing health and squalid living conditions in Buru Buru were publicised in 2012.
The latest celebrities to come to the former pugilist’s aid are Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko, through his rescue team, and BAK chairmanship aspirant Anthony Otieno, alias Jamal.
Another boxer in rehab courtesy of the Sonko Rescue Team is Suleiman Bilali, a quarter-finalist at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. But he is faring on better than Conje.
The official said: “It was noticeable Bilali had gained some weight and was looking very active when we visited him at Limuru Road rehab. The essence is to ensure the two boxers resume their normal lives in the society and ensure they are accepted to the sporting fraternity just as it was during their glory days.”
Bilali’s rehab images have elicited positive reactions from the boxing fraternity, including the vice president of Kenya Professional Boxing Commission, George Adipo.
“This is the Bilali I knew when we both went for the Brunners Urafiki tournament some time back with the Hit Squad. He defeated a Ugandan boxer by the name Kizito in light flyweight. God bless the works of his hands. I’m looking forward to seeing him resume his normal life,” he said.
While Conjestina’s plight is largely mental, Bilali has had to contend with alcoholism at his Muthurwa backyard, better known in boxing circles as Dallas.
Dallas Muthurwa has produced some of Kenya’s most celebrated boxers, including former world champion Stephen Muchoki, Los Angeles 84 Olympics bronze medalist Ibrahim ‘Surf’ Bilali, the late David ‘Harish’ Ouma and Nasser Athumani. Muchoki is the only Kenyan world champion, a feat he achieved in the late 70s.
Former Kenyan international Duncan Kuria, aka ‘Sugar Ray’, who was among those who accompanied BAK chairmanship aspirant ‘amal’ Otieno on Bilali’s visit, said: “Bilali is in his second phase of recovery, and so far he is doing very well.”
Conjestina was airlifted from her Siaya home to Nairobi, where she underwent a medical checkup at the Nairobi West Hospital. She spent close to a week at the Nairobi West facility before being taken to Eden House Rehabilitation Centre in Kabete.
Initially, Conjestina appeared to make positive steps towards recovery at the Eden House, where she got admitted on November 9. But the current reports from her base in Diani indicate a relapse.
KPBC secretary Franklin Imbenzi confirmed that the boxer is in a bad state.
“I have talked to someone who has confirmed her deteriorating condition,” Imbenzi said. “On behalf of the commission, I would like to thank Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko and incoming BAK president Jamal Otieno for their timely intervention to make sure Conjestina recovery is on the right track, and we are putting up a proposal to the national government to launch a scheme for retired boxers to address the welfare of our former boxers and to initiate various activities to benefit them, as is the case in Europe and Asia.”
Conjestina is not the only boxer languishing in oblivion and poverty. Legendary boxers like Olympic bronze and silver medalist Philip Waruinge in Nakuru and former world champion Steve Muchoki in Nairobi are living in abject poverty, despite distinguished service to the nation. Former All Africa Games gold medalist Steve Muema was holed up at their Kariobangi family house before succumbing to a long illness.
Imbenzi added: “It’s a shame that many boxers don’t invest in their active years. But KPBC will be launching a full-blown programme to educate them on investment and sensitise them on their well-being soon before our 2019 calendar kicks off in April. We are spreading this message far and wide.”
The official went on: “I think it’s high time we had a Welfare and Transition Programme for our retired sports personalities.”
Conjestina was born on October 20, 1977, in Umiru village, Yala division, Siaya district. She is the fifth born in a family of 10. Her father Clement Adalo is a retired medical officer, and her mother is Gertrude Auma. Conjestina was nicknamed ‘Hands of Stone’, and once ranked in the top 10 of the world middleweight rankings. She became the first African woman to clinch an international title when she vanquished Ugandan Fiona Tugume to rack up the vacant WIBF Middleweight title.
Despite not having achieved her childhood dream of fighting Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila Ali, Conjestina fought some of the very best in the trade, including Americans Yvonne Reiss and Laura Ramsey, and lost out in controversial title fight circumstances to then WBC and WBA super middleweight Natascha Ragosina.
Conjestina met her waterloo in 2007, when she was stopped in Mombasa in the sixth round by Laura Ramsey. This was a title fight for the Global Boxing Union (GBU). Conjestina last fought in February 2010, when she won a unanimous decision against Angela McKenzie.